After more than a year of sometimes contentious negotiations, the village of Riverside has reached an agreement on a new contract with the seven union members of its Public Works Department.

The three-year contract was approved by a vote of 4 to 1 at the Dec. 5 meeting of the Riverside Village Board. Trustee Ben Sells cast the only vote against the agreement. The new agreement grants small base pay raises to the public works employees.

The prior contract expired nearly one year ago, and the public works employees have been working all of 2011 without a contract. Under the terms of the new contract, public works employees will get no base pay raise at all in 2011, a raise of 1 percent in 2012 and a raise of 1.5 percent in 2013.

“It is an agreement that took into account the financial difficulties the village is facing,” said Riverside Village Manager Peter Scalera. “I’m happy. I feel it was really an effort on both sides. We were completely honest and upfront with each other.”

The union representing the public works employees, Service Employees International Union Local 73, had proposed last summer a wage freeze in 2011 and 2-percent raises in both 2012 and 2013. The village countered with an offer of a wage freeze in the 2011, a 1 percent raise in 2012 and a 2-percent raise in 2013 if the union would agree to eliminate step raises.

Step raises are automatic raises after a certain amount of time on the job. In the Riverside public works department there are no more than four steps, and all Riverside public works employees are on their highest step and no longer qualify for any more step increases.

However, the union refused to agree to eliminate step increases for future employees, and eventually the village agreed to keep step increases, but reduced the base pay raise for 2013.

The step increases are the main reason Sells voted against approving the contract.

“I don’t think it is in the public interest,” Sells said, noting that the step increase after six months on the job amount to about a 10-percent raise, and the second step increase after 18 months on the job amounts to about a 9-percent raise.

But since all current Riverside public works employees are already at the highest step, the continuation of step increases has no immediate effect on the cost of the contract to the village. The union wouldn’t budge on the issue.

“It became clear as this discussion proceeded that this was a deal breaker,” said Trustee Lonnie Sacchi. “And I think there comes a point in time where, for everyone’s benefit, a compromise needs to be made, and the majority of the board voted to make that compromise. But I think in a perfect world we would like step increases to go away.”

Under the new contract, a maintenance worker in the Public Works Department with more than four years of experience will make $26 an hour in 2012. A mechanic will make $27.91 an hour next year and a foreman/forester II will make $28.87 an hour next year.

In the previous four-year contract, public works employees received base wage increases of 3.5, 3.5, 3.75 and 3.95 percent increases.

Non-union village employees will receive 2-percent raises in 2012, double the raise that the public works employees will get.

Scalera defended the larger raises for the non-union village employees, pointing out that public works employees received nearly 4-percent raises in 2009 and 2010, years in which non-union village employees had raises of around 1 percent.

In 2011 non-union employees, like the public works employees, had their pay frozen. Scalera said that non-union employees are coming off a two-year wage freeze, but non-union village employees got a mid-year “merit” increase of 2 percent in 2009 and 2010.

The new contract also gives the public works employees one additional paid day off, Martin Luther King Day, a day that non-union village employees already have off. Public Works employees will have 12 paid days off annually.

Public works employees will contribute no more than 15 percent of the cost of their premiums for health insurance and 5 percent of the cost of their dental insurance.

Scalera and an attorney negotiated the contract for the village. Village board members were kept abreast of the negotiations in closed session meetings, where they decided upon their strategy and bottom lines.

Sells asked that the village board consider doing future contract negotiations out in the open and in open session.

“I think our residents have a right to see how these contracts are arrived at,” Sells said.